The Handmaid’s Tale quietly exploded outward several times this week, in little verbal outbursts as shocking and damaging as landmines. It happens when Rita tells Offred that Serena Joy wants to see her, and the Handmaid deadpans, “Awesome.” Then a few minutes later, after Serena Joy pronounces her suitable for their guests, Offred snarks, “Red’s my color.”
We viewers are used to these bon mots since the pilot, when Offred’s bitterly witty mental asides were the only indication that she still clung to her identity, her unique personality, as June. She’s silently invited Nick to knock back some beers with her at the oyster bar, chided herself for being an idiotic girl in a horror movie the first time she visited the Commander in private, and exhorted her fellow Handmaids (without saying aloud) to “Nolite te bastardes carborondorum, bitches.” But finally Offred’s internal monologue is bubbling up to her lips and spilling out, to be heard by someone other than us.
Spoilers for The Handmaid’s Tale, “A Woman’s Place.”
What summons June’s voice out of Offred’s mouth is a different kind of expansion, as the world of The Handmaid’s Tale opens up. In the book, the only acknowledgement of the world outside of Gilead occurs early on, when a gaggle of Japanese tourists want to take photos of the Handmaids and their tour guide must explain that “the women here have different customs, that to stare at them through the lens of a camera is, for them, an experience of violation.” When one of the tourists asks if they are happy, Offred knows what is expected of her:
“Yes, we are very happy,” I murmur. I have to say something. What else can I say?
As far as I can remember—I’m carrying so many different versions of the story in my head at this point—that moment shows up in the movie but doesn’t exist in the TV series. Instead, in line with the series’ expansion of Atwood’s world, they go bigger by bringing in an entire trade delegation from Mexico and their ambassador, the observant and sensitive Mrs. Castillo (Zabryna Guevara)—and yes, it’s telling that she is not given a first name. The Commander and Serena Joy are hosting them in their home, but they want to know all about Offred. All eyes are on her as the ambassador praises her “sacred position” and asks if she chose to make this sacrifice.
What can Offred say but “yes”? She chokes on the word, on giving up the opportunity to shout “HELP!” to potential saviors. She seals her fate with that word, allowing the delegation to believe the Commanders’ lies that Handmaids are valued members of society instead of prisoners and victims of rape. Yet Castillo pushes, seemingly wanting a more complex response:
“You have chosen such a difficult life. Are you happy?”
“I have found happiness, yes.”
It’s not quite a lie; Offred has found a small comfort in Nick. Though both claim it can never happen again, they find every discreet (and then not-so-discreet) opportunity to touch, to flirt, to keep stoking the energy between them. But that is worlds apart from any of the freedoms June once enjoyed.
One of the episode’s recurring motifs is of women gripping things—banisters, blankets, their own hands—to keep from saying the wrong (that is, the truthful) thing. The episode draws its title from A Woman’s Place, Serena Joy’s book about how women have been distracted from their true duties as wives and mothers. For the first time, we are treated to flashbacks of Serena Joy’s life before she was a capital-W Wife, when she could wear her hair down and whatever floral outfit and stiletto heels she desired. Her backstory builds on the core of book Serena, that she wanted Gilead without stopping to think of what freedoms would be stripped from her. But instead of an evangelist, she appears to have been more of an intellectual, brainstorming her second book (about “fertility as a national resource, reproduction as a moral imperative”) while advising her husband Fred on his secretive meetings with like-minded radicals.
It’s clear that Serena has been one of the masterminds behind Gilead since the beginning, yet her ideas were always filtered through Fred. And while he gives her credit where it is due, he doesn’t challenge it when the rules of their new world order prevent her from giving her remarks to a room full of Commanders. She takes this demotion in stride, though it’s clear that it has driven a wedge between her and her husband in the present, when she must apologize for interrupting the delegation in Fred’s office—a space in which Offred is allowed, at least on these official circumstances and she is not—and endure the shocked stares of other Commanders when she dares to give a short speech at the celebratory dinner.
This dinner is where things really get blown open. Because Mexico’s visit isn’t a one-time trip, a perfunctory check-in. It’s proof-of-concept, seeing the merchandise in action. Seeing the “children of Gilead” paraded around the room seals the deal. They’re not looking to trade oranges—they’re trading Handmaids. It’s a brilliant way to expand the world of the story literally and figuratively, to create global stakes outside of Gilead, and to set up potential stories for season 2: Climate change and underpopulation aren’t just problems in the United States, Gilead is simply the first place to propose an extreme solution.
Offred needs to speak up before her world becomes everyone’s world.
Each time she gives voice to her true thoughts in this episode, she gets something back. Her sarcastic “awesome” earns a knowing smirk from Rita and even a sympathetic word (“I’ll have a good thought for you”). Her joke about red being her color might be the most that she has ever shocked Serena Joy, but the Wife quickly recovers and retorts, “Lucky for you.” It’s not quite a “moment” between the two, but it’s better than Serena Joy automatically punishing her for speaking out of turn. So, when Castillo and her assistant stop by the Commander’s household with a gift for Offred, the Handmaid seizes the opportunity. She speaks the most freely she has in years, the longest she has let truth spill out rather than hold it in with platitudes like “may the Lord open” and “under His eye.” She talks of indoctrination, and maiming, and rape, and her daughter; you can see the terror and elation of articulating all of this trauma aloud.
But despite getting Mexican chocolates (that she won’t even be able to taste) for her fake candor, all that this dangerous confession earns her is the shattering of any remaining illusions:
“…So don’t be sorry. Please don’t be sorry. Please do something.”
“I can’t help you.”
Castillo certainly looks shocked, but she also looks like someone who is set in her decision. No children have been born alive in her hometown for six years; her country is dying, she argues. “My country’s already dead,” Offred shoots back, but she no longer has an ally. Like Serena Joy, Mrs. Castillo chooses complicity over the Handmaids’ rights to freedom.
Then, a small miracle, as Offred does get something for her words, from the man she had initially mistaken as the ambassador: He knows who Luke is and where he is, that he’s alive, and he can try to get a message to him.
And suddenly, Offred is speechless.